Brett Williams's Reviews > The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community

The Dismal Science by Stephen A. Marglin
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it was amazing

Finally liberals and conservatives agree on something. Like conservatives George W. Carey and Robert Nisbit, liberal Stephen Marglin sounds the alarm for community and tradition's demise - though they differ on cause. Instead of centralized government and rights invention by the Court, Marglin takes aim at that most sacred of modernity’s inventions, our Adam-Smith-originated economic model where the foundational assumptions of economics are those of modernity. Sounding like conservative Allan Bloom (“Shakespeare's Politics”), Marglin laments “the narrowing of economic minds as students set aside larger questions for career advancement.” Not so much directed at students but at this civilization's assumptions central to economic theory that made students this way. Point being that both sides (and there are only two in America) - despite evermore dogmatic defiance - are recognizing the machine we made that now makes us in its image. An image lacking community, humane perspectives and human connectedness. Not to confuse community with “association,” “special interest,” facebook or bowling league, both sides agree “community” is something deeper. A face-to-face arrangement in which people share a common cause and need, as Marglin writes, “creating a common future, recalling a common past.” This is decidedly not an adolescent counter-culture Sixties reaction, but a growing clarity of consequences of materialist thinking. Dismal is, however, not exactly a solution either. While we get the problem, how to fix it isn't clear. As Hayek showed in his “Road To Serfdom,” the devil’s in the details of practical implementation.

The kernel of Dismal Science is that modern economic models are approximations of reality (as anyone in science knows); that these models consider human aspects of society as perturbations or ignored altogether; that these inaccurate models are then made real through social engineering that force humans to fit as parts in the machine. Community becomes a foreign entity lost to shallows of modernity through the draining assumption that humans are “autonomous, rational, self-interested individuals seeking to maximize utility through efficient markets” and nothing more. To such an extreme that barriers to development like preservation of communities or the natural world are seen as backward hindrance to growth and globalization. Marglin's barn raising provides an example. Property insurance did not exist until the 17th century, but who today would want to be without it? If you pay an annual premium for your barn and your barn burns down, the insurance company pays strangers to rebuild it. While perhaps more efficient (or not) than gathering neighbors for a barn raising, in earlier times this was done. Responding to need, gathering those neighbors and building the barn strengthened interdependence and community. It is only when we focus on barns, says Marglin, rather than the people raising them that insurance appears a more effective means of coping with disaster.

Marglin owes some credit to Karl Polanyi for breaking the ice on this question, but Marglin provides a more complete argument with 70 years of added experience since Karl wrote his socialist manifesto, “The Great Transformation.” In that book Karl argued that societies are now subservient to economies, not the other way round as they had been. In “Dismal,” Marglin argues similarly that markets are now superior to communities. Again, in one of those great historical ironies, we hear the echo of Karl’s brother - and Frederick Hayek’s mentor, Michael Polanyi in Marglin’s defense of community and tradition as not “anything goes.” Occasionally dense with economist lingo (after all, he's also writing to economists), hang in there, the reward is very worth the effort, offering a fresh, experienced perspective to this latest creation of the Anthropocene (and but for human population, probably its most powerful force).
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Finished Reading
April 28, 2014 – Shelved

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